When I arrived here last August I watched Gary, guest-like, for a few days and then took on the simplest, most familiar tasks. I could do dishes, get water, and sweep with minimal instruction, but that was about it. While I can build and stoke the fire now, it took some practice. Gary taught me how to clean and can the berries we picked, dig post holes and provide a second set of hands for raising the wind tower and solar platform. I gather brush and use it to build small bonfires for burning garbage. I learned to stack wood the hard way. I tried splitting wood, but had trouble controlling the heavy axe and abandoned the effort while I still had all my toes. Everyone I’ve met here can split wood — unless they’re at least forty-five years older or younger than I am — so I know I’ll have to master it eventually.
As things have settled out this winter I usually make coffee and breakfast. Dinnertime comes too early to make lunch worthwhile, but as days grow longer that will change. Either one of us might make dinner, with a goal of having leftovers to reheat for a future meal or two. Gary sharpens the knives and I keep the kitchen supplies filled from the upstairs pantry (bedroom) where our fifty-pound sack of oatmeal and ten- and twenty-five pound sacks of various types of flour, lentils, pasta and grains reside.
I never learned the skilled trades that make up much of Gary’s work — logging, milling, construction and setting up alternative energy systems — so I’ve gratefully retained many of the minimum-wage jobs. I missed having a dishwasher when I first arrived, but a month or two later found myself telling Aunt Vee I was surprised to find I actually didn’t mind doing dishes.
“Warm water,” she replied knowingly.
Yes, that might explain it.
I do miss having a sink that drains properly; we’re not sure whether the underground tank is full, clogged or frozen, but the sink now drains into a bucket. As often as not, Gary carries the bucket out to the compost pile. This saves me some laundry, as I frequently manage to slop the contents on my pants leg. Since we do laundry by hand between trips to town, we each do our own; as you might imagine, nothing gets washed before its time. We don’t have a bathroom to clean, but the outhouse isn’t entirely maintenance-free. We have a problem common to outhouses in the frozen north, a stalagmite of sorts, so Gary gamely doused it with diesel fuel and lit a match. I hope that will be the end of that.
One of my favorite jobs has been getting water. In this weather, though, it’s a much harder task, so I try to get enough for two days when I go. A couple of weeks ago I found snowdrifts encroaching on my view of the icescape under the river’s surface. Snow is stealing my room; as I shovel a space for myself around the water, I’m at a loss to know where to put it all. Shoveling it up to the surface is tiring. I did push some into the hole, but the ice on the river bottom is thickening, and I worry that dumping large quantities might hasten the day when the hole is too shallow.
It was thirty-eight below when I went to get water the other day. My gloves iced up, so I switched them out for the mittens in my pocket. The plastic dipping bucket grew impossibly heavy with ice; I removed the worst of the buildup with the ice chisel, careful not to break the plastic, brittle in the cold. Ice on the buckets’ rims and lids frustrated my efforts to seal them. As my water spilled, new ice formed an imperfect seal, so I tried to coax the buckets into staying upright as I pulled the sled home. One refused, so I knocked ice from the buckets and sled and made a second trip.
I looked downriver to the sunset-pink Alaska Range; in the bitter cold I could see ice fog steaming from an open lead of water a hundred yards away. I’ll have to check it out; it might just be my next watering hole. Yesterday Gary and I went together to get water; it was forty-eight below. The hole, vigilantly protected with spruce boughs and snow, had nevertheless frozen over, and Gary had to reopen it with the ice chisel.
I want to be learning and doing more, particularly outdoors. Gary usually maintains the paths around our little campus, packing them every few days with the snowmachine. Recently he suggested I take over occasionally as a way of getting more comfortable with driving the thing. It may not have been wise to take him up on it on Friday the thirteenth, the day after our biggest snowfall and windstorm.
I started down the main drive toward the gate, circled past Gary’s truck and the logs we’d had delivered last summer — well, past the truck, certainly, but quite possibly over the logs. Gary breaks trail around the nearby campground so mushers and others can access the outhouses there. I was feeling confident, so rode out the gate to the campground. The snow was deep, his path completely obliterated, but how hard could it be?
I tipped over just past the first picnic table. I walked home for the shovel, but after shoveling long and hard the snowmachine still wouldn’t budge. I looked up when Ella whimpered to see Gary skiing toward us. Once we had the snow shoveled out of the way, he grabbed a handlebar and put all his weight on the skyward-facing running board of the machine to right it.
“Will you be able to finish the loop?” he asked.
The only thing I was confident of now was that I would not be able to steer through the turn, so Gary rode the full loop. He explained that I should never sit down while breaking trail and gave me other tips on how to avoid tipping, then left it to me to reinforce the path and continue my work. I made it back home and began reinforcing paths around the cabin and outbuildings. You could say I got stuck once again, or many more times, depending on how you count; I tipped, shoveled, inched forward and back, got stuck, shoveled, inched forward and back…you get the idea. At one point I got going and had to floor it to keep moving. I was heading directly, and rapidly, for the tool shed. A vole heard me coming and got out of there in a big hurry.
I missed the shed but thoroughly demolished what had once been a path; Gary shoveled for quite awhile to level things out.
“Can you drive the path now?” he asked when he’d finished.
“I’m not sure I can either,” he sighed, but mercifully took over to repair the damage.
Gary rode over the scarred path, and then I rode it myself as reinforcement, for the path and for myself. I learned some good lessons that day: be prepared; don’t sit on your butt; use your weight judiciously; if you feel yourself losing balance, stop and take stock; if you can’t move forward, go back and try again; and don’t be chicken.
Sunrise: 9:39 a.m.
Sunset: 4:39 p.m.
Weather: High, -8°; low, -21°, calm and partly cloudy. Yesterday it was -48°. Go figure!